Praying for the Dead
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Those who’ve died in a state of grace are not truly “dead”; they are our beloved in Heaven or in Purgatory (on their way to Heaven) and will forever be, world without end, part of the Communion of Saints — the Church Triumphant (the Saints in Heaven, whether or not they are beatified or canonized), the Church Suffering (the saints in Purgatory), and the Church Militant (the saints on earth).
Because, aside from those the Church has beatified or canonized, we can’t know who is already in Heaven, who is in Purgatory for a time, or who is damned, we pray for the dead for the rest of our lives — assuming they are in Purgatory, while hoping they are in Heaven and not damned. This has been the practice of Christians since the beginning of the Church, as attested to by inscriptions found in the catacombs, such as this one found in the Catacombs of Domitilla:
“Ut quisquis de fratribus legerity, roget Deum ut sancto et innocent spiritu ad Deum suscipiatur.” (“If any of the brethren reads this, let him ask that this holy and innocent soul may be received by God.”)
We also ask those who’ve died to pray for us. While those whom the Church has deemed to be of the Church Triumphant (the canonized Saints) are in Heaven for certain and are, therefore, in no need of our prayers for them, we’ve always asked for them to pray for us.
As to the Church Suffering in Purgatory (the “poor souls”), Aquinas teaches that they are not able to know, by themselves, our prayers; however, it is piously believed, and taught by St. Alphonsus Liguori, that God makes our prayers known to them — not directly, as they are deprived of the Beatific Vision until they enter Heaven, but by infusing this knowledge into their souls. St. Bellarmine teaches that because the Church Suffering is so close to God — much closer than we are and having the great consolation of knowing they are saved — their prayers for us are very effective. So, as you pray for your dead loved ones, ask them to pray for you, too! This practice, too, is attested to in the ancient catacombs, these coming again from the Catacomb of Domitilla:
“Roges pro nobis” (“Make petition for us”)
“Pete pro parentes tuos” (“Pray for your parents”)
“Pete pro sorore tua” (“Pray for your sister”)
“Succurrite cum judicabitis” (“Help us when you come to the judge”)
As to the damned, there is no hope; no prayer can help them and we can’t pray formally for those in Hell. The problem, of course, is that we can’t know who is damned, and so we pray generally for “all the faithful departed.” For those who’ve died outside of visible Communion with Christ’s Church or for those Catholics who’ve died seemingly without repentance and in scandal, public prayer cannot be offered, but we can most certainly still pray privately with the hope that they’ve died in a state of grace. Those who are denied a Catholic funeral can’t be prayed for liturgically, publicly, but they can most definitely be prayed for — and should be prayed for — privately. Priests can even offer Masses for such people privately, without naming them.
Liturgical Prayer for the Dead
Masses on the 3rd, 7th, and 30th Days and on Anniversaries
In addition to the prayers said just after death, and the prayers of the funeral Mass, it is Catholic practice to have Masses said for the departed on the 3rd, 7th, and 30th days after the death or burial. When tallying the dates for such Masses, one starts counting the day after the date of death or burial as day one. That is, for example, if someone were to die on May 1st and be buried on May 3rd, the Mass said for him on the 7th day should be offered on May 8th (the 7th day after death) or May 10th (the 7th day after the date of burial). Masses are also offered on the anniversaries of the date of death, but these are celebrated on the same date — i.e., one who dies on May 1, 2005 will have a Mass said on May 1, 2006.
Masses for the dead have infinite value, in the objective order, for the souls of the departed. They also have great subjective value for those who survive in that it is comforting to know that Masses are being offered for one’s departed loved ones. So, while the bereaved can arrange such Masses, others, even non-Catholics, can arrange with a priest to have such Masses said, too, which would be a great gift of comfort to survivors (stole fees for such Masses are usually $5 to $10 dollars, depending on the diocese). Such Masses don’t necessarily have to be offered in the diocese(s) of the deceased or bereaved; any priest, anywhere in the world, can be asked to offer a Mass for someone (note to non-Catholics: traditional Catholics would be most comforted, or only comforted, by a traditional Mass being offered, depending on how they view the Novus Ordo Mass. So be safe and arrange such things with a traditional priest.).
In any case, it is customary to let the bereaved know you’ve asked that a Mass be said by sending him a “Mass Card.” A Mass Card is much like a greeting card, but with a place to write in the intentions of a requested Mass, the name of the person who arranged the Mass, and, sometimes, the name of the priest who will be offering the Mass. Your church, chapel, or funeral home might have Mass Cards to send, but, if not, you can get them from Catholic gift shops and stationers, too. (Note that Mass Cards aren’t only sent to notify people of Masses for their dead loved ones, though this is their most common use; they can be sent to notify someone about Masses offered for other intentions, too, but Mass Cards for the Dead and Mass Cards for the Living are usually decorated very differently).
Masses for the Dead can be offered at almost any time, not only on the days mentioned above. At any time throughout the year after death of a loved one, and also in the years to come, a Catholic would consider it a very beautiful thing to receive a Mass Card letting him know that a Mass is being said for someone he misses. Most importantly, though, aside from the “gift” aspect of offering Masses for a friend’s dead relatives, the soul of the departed would receive the benefits of the greatest prayers of the Church and the infinite value of the offering of the Son to the Father for the remission of sins!
The Thirty Gregorian Masses
The Thirty Gregorian Masses are a series of Masses — one each day for thirty days1 — offered for a person presumed to be in Purgatory — i.e., for any Catholic faithful who’s died (and isn’t canonized). The practice is ancient, begun by its namesake, Pope St. Gregory the Great, who initiated “the Gregorian Thirty” in A.D. 590 at Rome’s Benedictine St. Andrew’s Monastery, which he founded (Gregory himself tells the story in his Dialogues2).
These Masses first could only be offered at that particular monastery, where the altar was considered a “privileged altar” — an altar on which the Mass brings a plenary indulgence for the person for whom the Mass is being offered. Later, other altars were privileged in that manner, and Benedictine priests everywhere came to offer the Thirty Masses.
“The Gregorian Thirty” are an unofficial, small-T tradition, and are not widely available. Any priest can offer them, but finding a priest who has the time (or, these days, who even knows about them) is a serious problem. Contacting religious priests (that is, priests who are members of religous orders instead of secular parish priests) would be your best bet if you’re wanting to have the Gregorian Thirty offered for a loved one.
Another thing to consider for yourself and your loved ones is to enroll in the Purgatorian Archconfraternity — an organization for whose members, living or dead, Mass is offered.
The Purgatorian Archconfraternity began with a group of Redemptorist Fathers in 1840, headquartered at the Church of S. Maria Monterone in Rome. Their group was raised by Pope Gregory XVI to the status of an Archconfraternity in 1841. After the Second Vatican Council, things went awry with the Archconfraternity as they did with everything else, but the Archconfraternity has been restored by the Transalpine Redemptorist Fathers who live in Golgotha Monastery on the little island of Papa Stronsay, in Orkney, North of Scotland (see video of these monks off the “Fun Stuff” page).
Once enrolled in the Archconfraternity, the traditional Latin Mass will be offered for you or your loved ones, as members of the group, living or dead, every day (except for those days when only one priest is available, or on those days when no Masses are ever offered, such as Good Friday, etc.). The Rosary will be prayed each Monday for dead members. If a living member of the Archconfraternity dies, a special Mass will be offered for him as soon as the priests are notified. One may enroll for a year or for a lifetime, as a single individual or as a family (parents and children). Living members should also try to assist the souls in Purgatory through their prayers and works, especially through the Mass, and should spread this devotion to others, but no obligations bind one under the pain of sin.
The daily Masses and weekly Rosaries offered by the island priests will continue until Jesus comes again, God willing, as long as there are at least three priests on Papa Stronsay. If ever there were two priests, the Masses would be offered weekly. If there were to ever be one priest, obligations would cease — but vocations are booming. See the Papa Stronsay website (off-site. Will open in new browser window).
For information on the Purgatorian Archconfraternity, write to:
Golgotha Monastery Island
Papa Stronsay, KW17 2AR
Private Prayer for the Dead
In addition to having a Mass said on the anniversary of a loved one’s death as mentioned above, there exists an old Christian custom of fasting, burning a candle for 24 hours, and praying for them on this day and on future anniversaries of the loved one’s death (this custom was adopted by Jews in the Middle Ages; they call it “Jahrzeit” — also spelled “Yahrzeit” — as did the medieval German Christians.) Any orthodox traditional or improvised prayer can be prayed at this time, but the Rosary is always appropriate and can be prayed now (or any time) for the dead, offered in the same way it is at Catholic funerals — i.e., with the Fatima Prayer replaced by the Eternal Rest Prayer. The Eternal Rest prayer is also prayed by itself, offered any time for the dead, when visiting grave sites, and when passing cemeteries. It is a prayer every Catholic should know by heart:
Eternal rest grant unto him/her (them), O Lord; and let perpetual light shine upon him/her (them). May he/she (they) rest in peace. Amen.
Réquiem ætérnam dona ei (eis) Dómine; et lux perpétua lúceat ei (eis). Requiéscat (Requiéscant) in pace. Amen.
We also pray for our dead every time we eat if we pray the After Meal Blessing, another prayer every Catholic should know by heart:
We give Thee thanks for all Thy benefits, O Almighty God, Who livest and reignest forever. And may the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.
Agimus tibi gratias, omnipotens Deus, pro universis beneficiis tuis, qui vivis et regnas in saecula saeculorum. Fidelium animae, per misericordiam Dei, requiescant in pace. Amen.
The Penitential Psalms — i.e., Psalms 6, 31, 37, 50, 101, 129, 142 — are also prayed for the dead, especially the 129th Psalm, known as De Profundis (Out of the Depths):
Out of the depths have I cried unto Thee, O Lord: Lord hear my voice.
Let Thine ears be attentive to the voice of my supplication.
If Thou, Lord, shouldst mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand?
But there is forgiveness with Thee: because of Thy law I wait for Thee, O Lord.
My soul waiteth on His word: my soul hopeth in the Lord.
From the morning watch even until night let Israel hope in the Lord:
For with the Lord there is mercy, and with Him is plentiful redemption.
And He shall redeem Israel, from all their iniquities.
De profúndis clamávi ad te, Dómine: Dómine, exáudi vocem meam.
Fiant aures tuae intendéntes: in vocem deprecationis meae.
Si iniquitátes observaveris, Dómine: Dómine, quis sustinébit.
Quia apud te propitiátio est: et propter legem tuam sustinui te, Dómine.
Sustinuit ánima mea in verbo ejus: sperávit ánima mea in Dómino.
A custodia matutina usque ad noctem: speret Israel in Dómino.
Quia apud Dóminum misericordia: et copiósa apud eum redémptio.
Et ipse redimet Israel, ex ómnibus iniquitátibus ejus.
The Prayer of St. Gertrude the Great
Another prayer Catholics should be familiar with is that of St. Gertrude the Great (A.D. 1256-1301/2), who was told by Our Lord in a private revelation, that when the following prayer is prayed earnestly, 1,000 souls will be released from Purgatory. This is not an official Catholic teaching, mind you, and the revelation may have only applied to St. Gertrude’s prayers; but the prayer is a good one nonetheless. Because of the desire to unite the prayer with the merits of the Mass, it is most powerful:
Eternal Father, I offer Thee the Most Precious Blood Of Thy Divine Son, Jesus, in union with the Masses said throughout the world today, for all the holy souls in Purgatory, for sinners everywhere, for sinners in the Universal Church, those in my own home and within my own family. Amen.
Heroic Act of Charity
An “Heroic Act of Charity” is the offering of the satisfactory value (not the merits) of all of our sufferings and works of our rest of our lives and of any time we may spend in Purgatory for the relief of the souls in Purgatory. We do this by first deciding to do so, and then praying (using our own words or the more formal prayer below) to offer these things to God through Mary’s hands.
Doing this is not a matter of taking a vow; it doesn’t bind under pain of sin, and it is revokable (unless one vows never to revoke the Act). But it is a tremendous sacrifice, hence the name. It is truly heroic, a giving up of one’s own earned relief from the temporal effects of sin — even relief of the sufferings of Purgatory — for the good of others.
In addition to asking God to use their satisfactory works for the souls in Purgatory, those who make this Act also receive a plenary indulgence (under the usual conditions) for the souls in Purgatory each time they receive Communion, and each time they hear Mass on Mondays for the sake of the departed. Words to a formal Act of Heroic Charity are as follows:
O Holy and Adorable Trinity, desiring to aid in the relief and release of the Holy Souls in Purgatory, through my devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, I cede and renounce, on behalf of these souls, all the satisfactory part of my works, and all the suffrages which may be given to me after my death. In their entirety, I offer them to Mary, the Most Holy Mother of God, that she may use them, according to her good pleasure, for those souls of the faithful departed whom she desires to alleviate their suffering. O my God, deign to accept and bless my offering which I make to Thee through the most august Queen of Heaven and Earth. Amen.
The Days of the Dead
The entire month of November is devoted to the Poor Souls in Purgatory, and Rosaries for the dead are offered during this time (with the Eternal Rest prayer replacing the Fatima prayer as above). The month-long devotion to the Souls in Purgatory begins with the three consecutive “Days of the Dead” at the end of October and early November:
The Days of the Dead are:
- All Hallows’ Eve: 31 October, the day on which we unofficially recall the realities of Hell and how to avoid it;
- All Saints Day, or All Hallows’ Day: 1 November, the day on which we officially honor God’s Saints of the Church Triumphant; and
- All Souls Day: 2 November, the day on which we officially commemorate and pray for all the faithful departed of the Church Suffering.
Some Catholics might pray a Novena for the Holy Souls, the All Souls Novena, or some other such Novena beginning on 24 October and ending on All Saints Day (the eve All Souls Day). Then, after sunset on All Saints Day, we light a candle (preferably one that that had been blessed at Candlemas) and pray the Rosary for the dead. The next day, 2 November, being All Souls Day, we can offer public prayer for the dead by attending one of the three Masses offered for the dead on that day. We also visit the graves of our family members, seeking those special indulgences for them that are only offered on All Souls Day and during the Octave of All Saints:
- A plenary indulgence, applicable only to the souls in Purgatory, may be gained on the 2nd by making a pious visit to a church to pray a Pater and the Creed, and
- A plenary indulgence, applicable only to the Souls in Purgatory, may also be gained fron 1 November to 8 November by visiting loved ones’ graves and praying the Eternal Rest prayer for their peace.
(For more information on the customs associated with
the Days of the Dead, see the Seasonal Customs page)
Other Prayer and Works for the Dead
We are not limited to indulgences for the dead on these Days of the Dead, however. Indulgenced works, prayer, votive offerings, alms-giving, etc., may always be offered for the dead, at any time of the year.
Note that those in Purgatory are also especially remembered on Ember Days. Also note that because those in Purgatory are no longer under the jurisdiction of the Church Militant, all the above prayers, indulgences, and works for the dead are offered by way of beseeching God to apply them for the relief of the Church Suffering.
See also the Chaplet of the Dead.
1 The thirty days on which the Thirty Gregorian Masses are offered are consecutive, interrupted only by Christmas, the Sacred Triduum of Holy Week (Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday), and Easter.
2 Pope St. Gregory the Great’s recounting of the origins of the “Thirty Gregorian Masses,” as found in his Dialogues:
I must not forget to add an incident that occurred in my monastery three years ago. There was a monk by the name of Justus, well versed in medicine, who attended to my needs while I was in the monastery and watched at my bedside during my frequent illnesses. When he himself became seriously ill, he was placed under the care of his brother Copiosus, who at present is practicing medicine here in Rome. Realizing that his final hour had come, Justus told his brother that he had kept three gold pieces hidden away for himself. This fact surely could not be concealed from the brethren. In making a careful search of the entire store of drugs, they came upon the gold pieces hidden away in a supply of medicine.
As soon as I found out that a monk living in community with us had committed this evil, I was very much disturbed. The rule of our monastery had always been that the brethren observe the common life strictly. No individual was to have anything whatever as his own. Sadly disappointed, I began to consider what to do in order to free the dying man of his guilt and give the living a salutary lesson. Sending for Pretiosus, the prior of the monastery, I said, ‘See to it that, none of the brethren visits the dying man or speaks any words: of comfort to him. When Justus in his dying moments calls for any of the brethren, let his own brother Copiosus inform him that the brethren will have nothing to do with him because of the three gold pieces in his possession. The bitterness of this experience at the moment of death may serve as a penitential scourge to cleanse him from the sin he has committed. After his death, do not bury him with the brethren, but, instead, cast his body into a grave dug in a manure pile. And as you throw the gold pieces into the grave; after him, have all the brethren say together, “Take your money with you to perdition.” So shall he be buried.’
Of these two commands, one was meant to benefit the; dying man, the other to instruct the living. The bitterness at the hour of death was to bring about the forgiveness of his sin, and the harsh condemnation of avarice was to deter the others from ever yielding to this vice. It had the desired effect. For when the monk came to die and anxiously tried to commend himself to the brethren, none of them would listen to him or speak to him. When Copiosus explained to his dying brother the reason for this treatment, he began to weep bitterly for his sin and so passed away in a state of sincere contrition.
He was buried as I had commanded. Frightened by this severe sentence, the brethren began one by one to bring back to me the smallest and most trifling articles, even such as the Rule allowed them to keep. They were very much afraid of retaining anything that might bring censure upon them.
Thirty days later, I began to feel strong compassion for the deceased Justus. As I considered with deep anguish the penalty he was enduring, I thought of a way to relieve him of his suffering. With this in mind, I called Pretiosus, the prior, and said to him sadly, ‘Justus has now been suffering the torments of fire for a long time and we must show him our charity by helping as much as we can to gain his release. Beginning today, offer the holy Sacrifice for his soul for thirty consecutive days. Not one of these days is to pass without a Mass being celebrated for his release.’ The prior obediently accepted the instructions and left.
Days passed, and being busy with other affairs, I lost count of them. Then, one night, Justus appeared to his brother Copiosus, who asked him at once why he came and how he was. ‘Up to this moment I was in misery,’ he said, ‘but now I am well, because this morning I was admitted to communion.’
Copiosus hurried to tell the monks the good news. Taking exact count of the days, they discovered that this was the thirtieth consecutive day on which Mass had been offered for him. Previous to this, Copiosus did not know that the brethren were offering Masses for Justus, nor did the brethren know that Copiosus had seen him in a vision. At the very moment, therefore, when they became mutually aware of what had taken place, they realized that the vision and the completion of the thirty Masses occurred at one and the same time. They were now convinced that the brother who had died was freed from punishment through the Sacrifice of the Mass.